LET'S BEGIN with the essentials. Mulligan Stew is utterly dazzling. Its pedigree goes back, not to the well-made novel, but rather to the "anatomy" - those extravaganzas that sprawl across world literature, offering encyclopedic, and usually comic, views of life and its foibles. Like Gargantua and Pantagruel or Tristram Shandy, Mulligan Stew sustains a display of linguistic virtuosity that takes your breath away. It contains some of the best parodies since S. J. Perelman at his most manic, and perhaps the most corrosive satire of the literary scene since early Aldous Huxley. This is a novel with all the stops pulled out, Gilbert Sorrentino's masterpiece.
Gilbert who? Well you should ask. Born in 1929 in Brooklyn, Sorrentino began writing in the 1950s, founded a small magazine called Neon , and later became book editor of the influential critical magazine Kulchur in the early '60s. He has written three previous novels - all neglected: The Sky Changes (1966), Steelwork (1970) and the searingly black-humored Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971).
A mulligan stew can contain anything - and Sorrentino has said that he wanted to be able to put anything into his book. He has. Part of its pleasure is in its variety: there are morsels for every literary taste. Essentially, the book parodies - with enormous gusto - the degraded language of cheap fiction, bad poetry, academic criticism. To control, if only gingerly, a chaos of language, Sorrentino employs three interconnected, yet distinct, stories. The narrative lines may seem complicated in summary, but each is clearly labeled and a reader will have no trouble keeping things straight.
In the first, a writer named Antony Lamont is painfully composing an "absurdist" detective novel. He keeps a scrapbook in which he records his thoughts and plans for the book, as well as his correspondence with various people, among them his sister Sheila, who is married to rival novelist Dermot Trellis. In the second narrative strand, Sorrentino presents in toto each chapter of Lamont's novel, which unfolds the events that have led publisher Martin Halpin to murder his friend Ned Beaumont. Beaumont had been in love with Daisy Buchanan ("haut monde her place, haute couture her love, haute cuisine her mundane fare") until he was bewitched by two mysterious temptresses named Corrie Corriendo and Berthe Delamode. For the third narrative plane, Sorrentino adopts a technique used by Flann O'Brien in At Swim-Two-Birds : all the characters in Lamont's novel are able to lead independent lives when the writer is away from his worktable. Halpin, for instance, keeps a detailed journal, recording Beaumont's gripes (about the sodden lout he must play) and both their opinions of the novel in which they appear.
Sorrentino, like his creation Lamont, obviously steals his players from other productions. Antony Lamont and Dermot Trellis (as well as the title to Trellis' pronographic classic, The Red Swan ) are drawn from At Swim-Two-Birds . Ned Beaumont is the tough guy hero of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key ; Daisy and Tom Buchanan are from The Great Gatsby . Halpin, as he tells us, appears in Joyce, and several figures referred to in passing are the burned-out writers and artists of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things . None of Sorrentino's characters is fleshed out; they remain - deliberately - caricatures, pegs on which to hang his prose.
Within each of the three narrative strands, which interact like a triple helix, Sorrentino works his kaleidoscopic inventions and parodies. Lamont's scrapbook, for instance, contains extracts from a number of his previous fictions. In one, Levenspiel monologizes from the pages of some archetypal "Jewish" novel: "My wife with the fur coats, the new dresses, the tight pants so you should see her whole body, I need this?" In another appears the weariest of world-weary detectives: "I crushed my glass in my hand. I didn't feel the pain except as part of the constant pain that was my whole bitter, shabby life."
Besides pastiche, Sorrentino has always delighted in lists, offering several in Stew . The best is a five-page epic catalogue of the books and magazines in the cabin where Halpin is telling his tale of love betrayed. Their titles are wonderful: Say Yes to Love by Molly Bloom; Napalm and Its Role in World Peace by Maxwell Champagne, Lt. Gen. USAF (Ret.); Golf Your Way to Sexual Fulfillment by Franz Godemiche; Bridges: Poets Express Their Love by Horace Rosette, ed.; A Layman's Guide to the Flies of North America by Rex Mattachine. Among the periodicals are Gibraniana, Art Futures, Deep Image Quarterly , and The Fargo Catamite . Nearly all these titles and authors are echoed elsewhere - the fictional Rosette, for example, apparently wrote the reader's report on Mulligan Stew for Grove Press.
Among the tastiest morsels of Mulligan Stew is an interview with a Nabokov look-alike named Thomas McCoy. "One wishes to create characters," says McCoy when questioned about his novelistic intent, "who will speak directly to the minds of comparative literature professors and intelligent book reviewers." Sorrentino, in his own way of course, does just this: the better read you are, the more jokes you get. Consider Lamont's arty allusions, always slightly off-center: "My favorite painter is the Picasso of Blue Proles ." There are numerous skewed borrowings from Eliot: "I wished that I might be a pair of ragged Moors battling to tear the drawers from nubile knees." Mallarme cocktails contain "white creme de menthe and ocean spray."
Like Perelman, Sorrentino also relishes mixing metaphors and changing allusions in the middle of a sentence: "Autumn leaves while others stand and wait" or "French letters in the sand," or even "a shantih in old shantihtown." At times he comes out with home truths perfect in their perverse logic: "Pitchers are bad hitters because they think of the ball as their friend." "Those who do not follow trends are condemned to repeat them."
But this isn't all to this "soup of pleasures various." The notable critic Vance Whiteside introduces The Red Swan in perfect academese: "It is a kind of narrative in reverse, i.e., it does not so much unfold specifics as suggest alternatives to non-specifics . . . What seems, on cursory reading, to be uncontrolled chaos atop chaos in this brilliant sur-fiction is revealed upon closer examination to be the continual stitching and unstitching of almost instantaneous metamorphoses. Things are not only not what they seem to be, they never were ." (This too is, beneath the jargon, a paradoxically close description of Mulligan Stew itself.) No less exact is the radio preacher style of Mrs. Ashby, the famed healer and seer: "Touch her radiant Body and her Power and Faith will flow into you." The Sweat of Love , a chapbook by Lorna Flambeaux, sings praises to love and the male sexual organ. Among her peoms - all presented in their entirety - are "Hot Bodies," "Open to Your Pridehood: A Prayer," and "Summerf-: A Dramatic Eclogue." (Flambeaux herself proves to be demure puritan, shocked by Lamont's advances.)
The dual highpoints of Mulligan Stew are Flawless Play Restored: The Masque of Fungo and the orgy scene at the Club Zap. The first is a Joycean phantasmagoria - comparable to the Bloom in Nighttown section of Ulysses - with a cast of thousands, among whom are Susan B. Anthony and Barnacle Bill. The masque recounts short-stop Foots Fungo's miraculous recovery of his ability for flawless play at baseball. The whole thing is a carnival of off-color jokes, puns and burlesques, including a takeoff on Robert Herrick: "When as in scanties Betsy goes."
As should be clear by now, Sorrentino possesses a Rabelaisian bawdiness - some of his funniest jokes are not quotable here. After parodying every literary form going, he presents what he labels his "obligatory sex scene." Daisy and Halpin go to see Corriendo and Delamode at the Club Zap, in the hopes of freeing Ned Beaumont from their insidious clutches. Instead they are drugged and all four participate in a lovingly described orgy. Their various positions and swirling wisps of clothing are detailed in the tone of a leering fashion expert: ". . . her superbly crafted thighs tattooed with dainty lengths of insubstantially delicious straps that gently pinched the glossy tops of the navy sheerness that caressed her legs." The whole scene is ludicrous yet erotic.
One should bear in mind that all of these puns and witticisms are happening "with the rapidity of speed itself" - they never let up. Still, the scenes are sufficiently paced so that the various stylistic acrobatics seldom pall - for example, a parodically dry paper on mathematical proofs thoughtfully prepares the reader for the luxurious orgy scene. Much of Sorrentino's brilliance and humor depend too on the gradual building of a situation and a language maniacally appropriate to it.
Mulligan Stew climaxes with the madness of Lamont who, gradually losing control of his novel, comes to believe it is being written by someone else. All his characters naturally abandon him. As Halpin prepares to leave he bids adieu: "To you other cats and chicks out there . . . a shake and a hug and a kiss and a drink. Cheers!"
Cheers, indeed - for Gilbert Sorrentino. One hopes that this brilliant tour de force will bring him the recognition he deserves, but I fear that, as he himself has written, "If you make a better book the world will build a mousetrap at your door."